Rare plants make great stocking stuffers for gardeners

Wednesday, November 22, 2006
The Lord Stanley tulip was a hot seller last year. Bulbs were priced at $26 a piece. (Image courtesy oldhousegardens.com)

NEW MARKET, Va. -- Pleasure gardens are becoming treasure gardens as homeowners increasingly showcase their collections of rare and unusual plants. It's a passion similar to those for antique furniture, vintage wines or classic cars.

"Luxury," "premium," "exclusive" and "select" are among the adjectives creeping into flower industry ads. Exotic plants can bring higher profits per unit, of course, provided marketers are able to find enough to go around.

"The rarest things we don't bother putting into our catalogs," says Scott Kunst, owner of Old House Gardens, an Ann Arbor, Mich., nursery specializing in heirloom flower bulbs. "The harvest is always iffy. We could list them in the catalogs but they might sell out in a month and people who order those [varietals] will be disappointed. So we just offer them on the Internet. There we can immediately mark them 'sold' when they're gone."

One of the most popular blooms that Old House Gardens offered last year was a mahogany-on-gold tulip called the Lord Stanley. Bulbs were priced at $26 apiece, and there was a great deal more demand than supply.

"We got a very few of those from a collector in England. They were gone in a day and a half, online," Kunst says, "We get a lot of our bulbs from Dutch antique gardens, which makes for higher prices."

As a point of reference, if you're simply shopping for bargains, you can get 19 tulips for $19 at many of the big box stores, he says.

No one knows how large this upscale side of the plant market will grow, but suppliers are bulking up for it, botanically speaking. W. Atlee Burpee & Co., one of the nation's pioneer seed catalog companies, is among them.

"We do collectors' plants mainly through our Heronswood subsidiary," says George Ball Jr., Burpee chairman, president and chief executive officer. "If you were to describe what each of our companies offers by way of comparing plants to cars, Burpee would be a Ford, The Cooks Garden [another mail-order subsidiary] would be a Volvo and Heronswood would be a Jaguar."

Most amateur collectors focus on small segments of the specialty plant market: wild orchids, for example, decorator melons, elegant day lilies or unusual tree peonies. But there has been an overall rise in interest over the past few years, Ball says. "We're rushing to supply that demand as best we can, but we have to travel the world to do so."

It isn't unheard of to pay $500 for a distinctive Japanese maple, or $10,000 to drop a mature tree into the ground. Shapely topiary and bonsai specimens also sell quickly.

"More and more people are into gardening and some have a lot of money and get real enthusiastic about it," Kunst says. "Instead of buying boats, they direct their spending toward the landscape."

The current crop of rare-plant collectors is made up mostly of aging baby boomers who are as interested in the story behind the plant as they are in the plant itself, Ball says. People want to dream and be transported.

"There's this romance about the plant and where it comes from that drives us to do a lot of things with our labeling," Ball says. "In one case, we describe at length the side of a mountain in the Himalayas where that particular plant was collected."

Holiday gift buyers seeking something uncommonly creative to place in their favorite gardener's Christmas stocking might consider one or more of these exotics:

* Chocolate mimosa or black bamboo from Wayside Gardens, a Park Seed Co. subsidiary catering to "elite gardeners." The mimosa and bamboo are priced at $149.95 and $99.95, respectively, and are available only on the Internet.

* Heronswood Nursery is offering what it calls the first hellebore clones on the market. A new hybrid, the Green Heron, has long-lasting, pale green blooms and retails for $21.95.

* One of the top-rated tulip varieties being sold this fall by Old House Gardens on its Web-only rarities list is the Silver Standard, a white-splashed-with-red bloom dating back to the 1700s. They list for $17 per bulb.

"The nice thing about collecting plants is that they come back the next year and the next," Kunst says. "Every spring, you're looking forward to see this rare bulb bloom again."

On the Net:

For Web-only rare plant offers, look to these listings: Wayside Gardens: http://www.waysidegardens.com; Heronswood Nursery: http://www.heronswood.com; and Old House Gardens: http://oldhousegardens.com.

You can contact Dean Fosdick at deanfosdick(at)netscape.net.

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